Designing and Assessing Reflective Writing Assignments

Daniel Emery

Many instructors know the benefits of reflective writing for promoting students’ conceptual understanding, encouraging student agency, and helping students transfer what they have learned to new contexts. At the same time, grading students' reflections can be challenging: when students report their personal, subjective reflections, doesn’t it make all grading subjective? How can we grade reflective work fairly? This month’s blog post discusses how instructors can design meaningful reflective assignments that maximize student learning and metacognition but allow for effective and efficient grading.

Elements of reflective writing assignments

Tree and large home reflected on water

Reflective assignments enable students to consider their thoughts, skills, and attitudes as they relate to a concrete context or experience. For a student in theater, it may be a reflection on attending a professional performance, while in engineering, it could include a reflection on a job shadowing experience or internship. In general, reflective assignments have three parts:

  1. An experience or encounter
  2. Post-experience sense-making
  3. Aligning the experience with future intentions

One popular model describes these as ERA components (experience, reflection, action), while Gary Rolfe and associates described critical reflection as answering the questions “What? So what? Now what?” Additional models of reflection include the Kolb Learning Cycle, the Gibbs Reflective Cycle, and Brookfield’s four lenses model for educational reflection.

Regardless of the model of reflection used, unpacking the multiple stages of the process of reflection and making those elements of the assignment explicit can help improve the quality of student responses.

Components of effective responses

Description: Most reflective assignments will ask the student to begin with a concrete illustration of an experience, event, or encounter. To help students describe the context of their learning, you can remind students of the classic journalistic questions: Who, what, when, where, and why. Ask students to attend to salient details, including unfamiliar or unexpected ones.

Reaction: After the experience, students can address their multiple responses to what they’ve observed. This reaction component can include some or all of the following components or ask some or all of these questions:

  • Affective reaction: What thoughts, feelings, and ideas emerged immediately from the encounter or experience? What thoughts, feelings, and ideas came up later as you had time to process them?
  • Consolidating: What new learning did you come away with? What ideas you had were confirmed, and what ideas you have had may have changed?
  • Sense-making: How have you come to understand what was unfamiliar or strange? How can you follow up or gain additional information?

Action: The final step of the reflection is to apply the lessons learned from the experience into the context of future action. Future action can be addressed by writing about one or more of the following concepts:

  • Connection: How do you relate what happened in the encounter to your previous ideas, beliefs, and attitudes?
  • Prediction: What will these lessons mean to you in specific future contexts (in class, outside of class, in your envisioned professional future)?
  • Preparation: What’s next for you, and how might your new learning apply in future contexts and situations?

Establishing standards of performance

When assessing description, instructors can differentiate between the degree of detail and the focus and clarity of description. Weaker descriptions will simply recount the events of an experience in sequence (this, and then this, and then this), while stronger descriptions will emphasize details and features related to the learning context or course content.

Stronger     Weaker

Detailed, focused, and clear

Detailed, but unfocused

Some salient details, but missing key elements

Lacking descriptive details

Similarly, the reaction component of the assessment can focus on the level of detail and engagement. Instructors should assure students that they are not assessing their feelings, thoughts, or reactions but the degree to which students’ written reflection suggests that learning has occurred in the context of the experience. Students may be tempted to write conversion narratives (“I was ignorant of X, but now I understand X”), but the best use of reflection will emphasize how previously held ideas have been both confirmed and challenged, as well as what specific new information has become clear.

Stronger     Weaker
Deep and meaningful engagement with learning Detailed and clear engagement with learning Shallow attention to new learning; cliched or vague reflection Little evidence of new learning; fails to move beyond description

To assess the action component of a reflection, instructors can attend to the language students use to make connections to future learning and contexts. Ideally, students should be able to connect their reflection to what they have already learned to the future contexts in which it will be meaningful or useful.

Stronger     Weaker
Clearly addresses the "so what" question; includes specific contexts and applications Addresses the "so what" question, but with generalizations or few details Describes limited connection to future context or experience Fails to demonstrate connections to future action

Bring discussion of reflection into class

When students are provided clear expectations for their reflective assignments and see multiple effective examples of student work, they will perform well on reflection assignments. What’s more, students' reflections will improve as they receive feedback on the quality of their earlier efforts. While this may result in scores that skew to the higher end, these scores accurately reflect the quality of student learning. Should your course include high-stakes assessments to differentiate student performance, it can be easier to use other assessments (exams, quizzes, or other writing assignments) to achieve a more typical distribution.

Meet with the Teaching with Writing Team

Visit the Writing Across the Curriculum Program and follow us on Twitter @UMNWriting. You can schedule a phone, email, in-person, or zoom through our online consultation form. Our Teaching with Writing Program website offers teaching resources to faculty members and instructors across the University of Minnesota system.


Bassiot, Barbara. The Reflective Practice Guide: An interdisciplinary approach to critical reflection. London: Routledge, 2016.

Dreifuerst, Kristina T. Using debriefing for meaningful learning to foster development of clinical reasoning in simulation. Journal of Nursing Education. 2012 Jun;51(6):326-33. doi: 10.3928/01484834-20120409-02.  

Wald, Hedy S;  Borkan, Jeffrey M; Taylor, Julie Scott; Anthony, David; and Reis, Shmuel P.  Fostering and Evaluating Reflective Capacity in Medical Education: Developing the REFLECT Rubric for Assessing Reflective Writing, Academic Medicine: January 2012 - Volume 87 - Issue 1 - p 41-50. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e31823b55fa


Thank you, Dan and the TWW team! I was so excited to see "reflective writing" as the subject of this edition's TWW blog post. This is helpful framing for assessing students' reflective writing! For assessing "action", another practice I use (stemming from Motivational Interviewing) is to look for details the writer shares for "how" and "when" action may happen; if this isn't fully developed in initial drafts, I may ask questions like "what do you sense is the first step?" and "when do you think your first opportunity to try this may be?". I've also used reflective writing as a formative assessment tool to get a sense of where students are at in balancing their sense of an experience with perspective-taking. One question I like to pose to students for quick reflective writing is: "What, if any, ideas or perspectives were new for you to consider from this discussion, text, etc.?"

Thank you for sharing these insights and tips for designing and assessing reflective writing assignments. I love how this post highlights the importance of incorporating Gibbs' Reflective Cycle in reflective writing assignments. The emphasis on designing assignments that promote deeper reflection and self-awareness is key to ensuring students can fully benefit from this valuable learning tool. Also recommend to check out this post about reflective cycle: